Thursday, July 07, 2011

THE END: Nine Years of Mesquite, Hurricanes, and, All Too Seldom, Fabulous Flying

   Everyone else is gone and I am sitting with a beer looking out at Falcon Lake (Come for the jet-skiing, stay for the funeral) contemplating the likely end of a bitter-sweet piece of personal history.  Nine years ago I first came to Zapata at David Glover’s urging.  My objective was to set a world record, ideally “the” world record, the sport’s absolute distance record.  Previously I had already invested five wonderful summers in Rock Springs,WY pursuing the record.  But in 2001 Manfred Ruhmer blew out Larry Tudor’s existing 308 mile record set from Rock Springs.  With that, I realized that it had become essentially impossible to break Manfred’s new 435 mile record in Rock Springs, and that if I were serious about record hunting I would have to go to Zapata to do it. 

So, the following year, 2002, I began what was to become an enduring love-hate relationship with this place; a relationship that began astonishingly well.  Within a week of arriving, Mike Barber and I had made a couple of quick “training” flights of 125 and 160 miles to get the lay of the land.  To round out a pleasant week’s flying we then jointly set the declared-distance-to-goal record of 321 miles.  Wisely, Mike kept going, flying 438 miles and informally breaking Manfred’s record.  Half an hour slower, and behind Mike, I opted to land at our declared goal of Big LakeTexas.  Before launching we had been assured that the day only rated a “5” on a scale of one to ten.  In the coming month we were sure to see another three or four days with conditions at least that good.  Assuming that this was an only moderately good Zapata day, I thought it would be the coolest damn thing to land my hang glider 321 miles away, at a point declared to be my destination nine hours before. 

Charlie Averitt
 It was indeed the finest thing I have ever accomplished.  Nonetheless, I have seldom regretted a decision as I do the one to land.  Nine years later only one other person has even come close to breaking Mike’s record, Dustin Martin who went 410 miles three years ago.  After our astonishing flights that year it began to rain.  It rained in an environment where Gary Osoba’s meteorological research indicated that we should experience essentially no rain during the months of our interest. But history be damned, it rained; rained hard and often.   Indeed an early hurricane put an end to that year’s campaign.

And so it has gone over the intervening years.  A changing cast of characters has rotated through Zapata flying a variety of gliders.  Many were world class competition pilots (Manfred, Mike Barber, Dustin, Alex Ploner, Jonny Durand, Bo Hagewood, and Paris Williams, to name some) while others were weekend warriors with dreams.  We flew a variety of gliders: flex wings, rigids, Falcons, and Swifts, and, briefly, paragliders.  Our guiding genius brought a succession of, first, ultralight sailplanes (which he kindly let me fly) and ultimately the uniquely heavy Gemini with which he set this year’s record.  For a short while we flirted with towing from a dirt strip built for us on a local banker’s property twenty miles northeast of the airport.  The objective was to give us a starting point further east to ease the basic early morning tactical problem of getting around Laredo’s airspace.  Several pilots set triangle records (itself an indication that the winds were too light to go for the big distance), and several Swift and sailplane records went down.  But the big conditions never returned in their entirety.

The Zapata Basics

Through it all there was several constants.  Perhaps obviously, there was the airport.  But much more importantly, there was, and is, Charlie Averitt the airport’s manager 
Russell Brown - Quest Air, Florida
and in a very real sense our host in Zapata.  The consummate aviator, Charlie has essentially placed his airport at our disposal for weeks at a time, allowing us to use his hangar for the tug and all manner of gliders that we’ve brought here.  His kindness and concern for our quixotic quest has been touching, and without him I am not sure the WRE would have either happened or endured.  Then there are the tugs and tug pilots.   First among equals is Russell Brown 
who has towed us for countless years, and provided tugs for the ones when he wasn’t here.  Steve Kroop for years also provided a tug (and was foolish enough to let me ferry it across four hundred miles of desert), while we had a host of excellent, indeed world class, tug pilots: Rhett Radford, Wiley, Bo Hagewood, and Armand. 

Another constant is Gary Osoba, whose extraordinary 
understanding of the macro-meteorological aspects of cross country soaring provided the insight which unlocked Zapata’s unique potential.  Ironically, the key to Zapata’s long distance potential lies in the consistent southerly wind that reaches from the Gulf of Mexico up into eastern Wyoming.  It is precisely that southerly air flow in Wyoming that had blocked our record attempts from Rock Springs, over eleven hundred miles away.  But I digress. 

Davis Straub -
Davis Straub too has been in Zapata every year.  He simply loves coming (although I am not sure the same can be said for Belinda) and he has accumulated a boatload of 
formal and informal records here.  Jokingly, I ascribe to Davis the role of dark counterpoint to Gary’s optimistic daily weather forecasts.  David Glover too has been here for the bulk of the campaign, filling a more amorphous role that combined driver, ringmaster and entertainment director. 

Just as tugs and pilots are essential, we simply could not fly over this country without dedicated and skilled drivers.  Some pilots have indeed come here without a personal driver, but they have often paid a terrible price for it in extremely long retrieves from extremely long flights.  No one has died, but there have been some near misses and horrible retrieves (Of course, there were good retrieves too: Rick Walker picked-up Jamie Shelden and her glider with a helicopter). Anyone who’s been serious about going far has been compelled to come up with a driver.  But even then, there are drivers, and there are drivers.  One infamous driver drove out some 250 miles, lost contact with her pilot and then drove home, leaving him out there on his own. 
Gary helping me launch.

However, I have been blessed with two extraordinarily good drivers who combined the necessary intelligence, technical skills, and devotion to guarantee that I would get picked up no matter where I landed.  Drew Holupka drove the most years (and had driven in Wyoming as well), and he had the worst of it.  He experienced the nastiest weather as well as the worst of the evil mesquite walk-out retrieves while I learned my piloting trade.  Once I became a better pilot, the bad retrieves diminished.  But Drew was there for the early ones.  Fortunately, Drew also experienced the finest of all retrieves: he was there within minutes when I landed at my Big Lake record goal, after which we drove on to pick up Mikey Barber at 438 miles.  Those are literally world record retrieves.

My other driver was and is David Glover.  In some respects it is nothing more than fitting that he got stuck driving for me as he is the individual who talked me into coming to Zapata in the first place.  And David has proven to be every bit as good as Drew.  However rooming with him is quite different as his tv watching tends towards Stephen Colbert and the Daily Show, while Drew and I watched the Tour de France and Maria Sharapova’s legs at Wimbledon.  They may differ in style, but I have been exceptionally lucky to have two such friends willing to help me strive for my life’s dream…as well as being willing to help hike out my glider in hundred degree temperatures.

Perhaps the most constant presence at the WRE has been the weather and our obsessive attention to it.  Perhaps better said, the weather has been the most inconstant presence.  Obviously, the historic weather patterns are the reason we have continued to come to Zapata, and also the basis for the extraordinary number of records set here.  But at the same time its maddeningly erratic behavior has provided the absolutely worst aspects of the Zapata experience.  We have literally seen the desert cactus bloom.  We have seen the prevailing winds reverse themselves, or simply stop blowing (good for triangle records, I concede). But we have all too seldom seen the weather provide all of the necessary constituent parts we require to set distance records.     

The enormous scale of what we are attempting requires an extraordinary number of individual weather features to be simultaneously present over a vast area.  We need morning Gulf moisture to produce the remarkably solid and reliable cloud streets that provide usable thermal conditions at 9:30 in the morning.  We need a southeasterly wind direction that on the one hand brings in the moist air, but one that is not too easterly and driving us into Mexico.  And that wind must continue for over five hundred miles with both a consistent direction and velocity.  We also need cumulus clouds that continue over the entire distance.  It is not enough that we have the morning overrunning clouds for a good start.  We need them to become conventional cumulus clouds towards noon, and then they must improve as we continue northward.  The climb rates must increase, and, critically, cloud base must continually rise for two reasons.  Until cloud base rises significantly above the mesquite country it is impossible to fly very fast.  Otherwise, we must fly too cautiously.  And once one has left the mesquite plains behind, one hundred and fifty miles from the start, it becomes essential that the clouds continue to rise as one gets up onto the Edwards Plateau.  For it is there, late in the day, that we can fly fastest.  High clouds coupled with high winds and the presence of evening convergence clouds allow one to move extraordinarily quickly in the final hours before landing.  Finally, this all must continue until half an hour past sunset, the legal limit of our latest landing time.  Mike Barber’s unofficial record flight took eleven hours, and he needed every damn minute of it.  I am occasionally still astonished by the audacity of what we attempt, and have achieved, here.      

Throwing Chicken Bones and Checking Chicken Entrails, or Weather Forecasting
If the weather itself has been a constant, so too has been our obsessive daily preoccupation with forecasts, short- and long-term.  I like to say that I just look out the window in the morning to see if the over-running is happening, but the truth is that Gary and Davis’ often contradictory insights are an invaluable part of my daily decision-making matrix. But sometimes I just have to walk away with fingers in my ears.


An early constant at the WRE was the presence of what we perhaps arrogantly referred to as tourists.   The dramatic early successes from Zapata created the misleading impression that it was “easy” to fly far from Zapata; that two hundred mile flights were low hanging fruit below mesquite trees.  This resulted in an early surge of interest in participation by good local club pilots.  During my first few years there were a considerable number of club pilots who had succumbed to the malign lure of Zapata.  Very, very few of them had particularly good flights; indeed many never really left the hangar, and some experienced only short flights and nightmarish retrieves.  WRE organizer Gary Osoba was placed in a quandary. On the one hand he needed a certain number of pilots to attend and help defray the considerable fixed costs of the project.  On the other hand, it would be irresponsible to invite the participation of individuals who at best would not have fun, and, at worst, would be at risk flying in this unforgiving environment.  In the end, stories of Zapata’s difficulties spread to deter the participation of almost all tourists.  However, while that was good for safety, it rendered the WRE finances tenuous.  There were years where little more than Davis, Robin Hamilton and I really flew.  Zapata is a place that requires a unique mix of skill, attitude and opportunity, and at the risk of being elitist, that combination is a rare commodity. 

The School of Zapata
I don't know why I'm smiling.
Finally, as I contemplate leaving Zapata, never to return, I am compelled to reflect upon its effect on me.  Simply put, the experience has made me a much better pilot.  Zapata’s principle limitation, the weak morning lift drifting across highly undesirable country, has taught me a patience and focus I never had before.  Zapata’s reliability has taught me that you simply don’t have to give up until your feet hit the ground (or until you’re going to have to land in the mesquite).  Zapata’s grand scale has allowed me to dream beyond previous boundaries.  Most pilots have difficulty imagining a flight of more than five miles beyond their present position.  Flying in Zapata teaches one to think not in tens, but hundreds of miles.  My longest flight this year was a bit short of two hundred miles; but that was little more than half of the day’s declared goal. Most pilots can’t imagine doing it, but that is precisely what is routinely attempted down here.  The scope of what we have attempted teaches patience on a grand scale.  An hour’s groveling low under a temporary cirrus deck is merely a brief interruption in a long flight.  It has given me something very special, the skills and outlook of a strategic pilot.  I see beyond the horizon, and believe I can get there.

The End
While the Zapata experience may be trying at times, it has nonetheless also provided me with the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.  And, with all due respect to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is not 42.  It is,


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